Along the Yellow River

The Yellow River (Chinese: 黄河 Huáng Hé) is one of China's great rivers, the cradle of Chinese civilization and a historic transport route. It is not as important a tourist route as the Yangtze further south, but might be of interest to some.

The Yellow River is not tame. Only parts of it are navigable; other sections have quite a rapid current. It has had many disastrous floods; irrigation and flood control projects have been going on in the area for several thousand years and have never achieved complete success.



Chinese civilization first developed along the Yellow River; the Shang Dynasty ruled a region around the river from 1700 BCE. The Zhou Dynasty, 1027-221 BCE, expanded the empire southward into the Yangtze river (Chang Jiang) basin.

The provinces of Hebei and Henan take their names from this river. "He" is "river, "bei" and "nan" are "north" and "south" respectively.


Current course

The river rises in Qinghai in the foothills of the Himalayas and runs north to Inner Mongolia. There it runs in a big arc, with the Great Wall following it for some distance, before turning east toward the sea.

Cities on its route, listed from source to coast:

  • Xining, capital of Qinghai on one of its tributaries
  • Lanzhou, capital of Gansu
  • Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia
  • Wuhai, in a strategic position controlling a pass
  • Baotou, largest city in Inner Mongolia
    • the capital, Hohhot, is near the river but not on it
  • The great city of Xi'an, China's capital during the Qin, Western Han and Tang dynasties, is off the main river course, on a tributary
  • Sanmenxia, strategic city between Wei valley and North China Plains, where Taoism was founded
  • Zhengzhou, capital of Henan
  • Luoyang, capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty, located off the main river course on a tributary
  • Kaifeng, historical capital of the Northern Song dynasty
  • Jinan, capital of Shandong, is just up the river from the coast
  • Dongying, a city on the Yellow River Delta in Shandong

Of course there are many smaller towns as well.

Over the centuries the river has changed its course several times; the last change in 1853 moved the mouth the length of Shandong province. Today the part of the river below Jinan runs northeast and reaches the sea north of the Shandong peninsula; until 1853 it ran southeast and reached the sea on the other side of the peninsula, well south of Qingdao.


The Yellow River downstream of the Liujiaxia Dam in Gansu

Much of the area is not geared for foreign tourists. If you do not speak Chinese, you will need a least a phrasebook, preferably a bilingual guide. If possible, learn some Chinese before setting out.

Get in


The nearest major airport is Beijing. See the China article for visa information.



There are trains throughout the area. All the trains to western China (Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu) go through Lanzhou, which lies on the banks of the Yellow River. The Beijing-Lanzhou "north route" follows the Yellow River for half of its way. The train from Beijing to Tibet via Qinghai passes through several of the cities along the river. There are also boats along some parts of the river.

However, for flexibility if you want to follow the Yellow River, you would need to travel largely by road. Rich travelers might rent a car and driver, see Driving in China. Others would use buses, varied perhaps with train or boat for some sections.

Stay safe


General precautions against common scams and pickpockets are advisable anywhere in China.

Go next


From the inland end of this route, you could turn west onto the Silk Road (Lanzhou is on the main route), turn southeast to reach Xi'an, or go a little west to Golmud which is a jumping off point for Tibet.

At the coast end, Beijing is nearby to the north. Going south, Shanghai via Suzhou would be the obvious route but there are many other choices.

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